Flash in the Pan
On a bright cold day in April, one o’clockish, a Friday, 1993 or thereabouts, in an elementary school computer lab populated by a ragtag assemblage of low-end Macintosh LCs and rather more quaint Commodore Amigas and 128s, I sat hunched over in my miniature ergonomic chair, mouth agape, entranced by 256 vibrant colors of edutainment diffused across a twelve-inch monitor, poised to make history on a microcosmic scale.
My game of choice was Word Munchers, a Pacman clone designed to impart basic grammar skills upon jaded schoolchildren. See, you controlled this little monster, and you had to make him eat words that conformed to specific vowel sounds, or words that were only adjectives, or words that rhymed with other words, and so forth. The specifics aren’t important. What’s important is that on that day in April, after two hours of hyperfocused play, I beat the game. I was in the first grade, and I beat the whole entire game on the fifth grade level. The highest level.
I tell you this not to brag – to say that I have no taste for self-aggrandizement is a grievous understatement. I recount this story because, as pathetic as it might sound, beating that stupid, inconsequential game on that bright cold day remains—to this very moment—the apex accomplishment of my entire life. For one fleeting coruscation, one fraction of a second, I was open to options that I’d never before considered. Everything seemed within the realm of possibility. I know it sounds reductive to posit that my entire self-concept could be based upon a single incident from my childhood, but on that day, I cast a shadow from which I’ve never been able to fully emerge. There’s no way I could ever live up to my own grandiose expectations.
Last year, at the age of twenty-eight, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Contrary to the unfair stereotype of a child with ADHD being an obstreperous malcontent who revels in kicking the backs of chairs and assailing other people with various calibers of Nerf-based ordnance, growing up I was always exceptionally deferential to my elders. Quiet, calm, unassuming, stable. Sycophantic at times. The punchable little quisling who reminded the teacher of theretofore unassigned weekend homework. Somewhat akin to Martin Prince, though lacking his social cachet. At least that’s how I was for the first few years, before I burned out. For me, having ADHD is analogous to using a color wheel without the little spinny top part; I have the advantage of being able to see all the colors at once, but I’m at a distinct disadvantage in that I can’t discern which colors are best suited for one another. Which is really the whole point of a color wheel, as far as I know.
Or it’s like being a Tralfamadorian, possessed of a mind that exists simultaneously in the past, present, and future – a maddening, quasi-omniscient, peripatetic blur.
Perception is unified; there’s very little atomization into distinct schemata; everything leads tangentially into everything else. I simply can't navigate. I can’t command my mind to go where it needs to go. It’s not that I can’t focus on anything, it’s that I feel compelled to focus on everything all at once. Or one precise thing to the detriment of all else.
I can make conceptual connections and empathize with other beings in ways that many neurotypical people can't or don’t want to, but I’m barely functional in almost every other regard.
I lack the ability to delay gratification in the very specific sense that I will put off anything that I am doing—no matter how important—if I perceive there's something I can do in the immediate moment to help someone else, even if that help is not really needed. I might spend hours or even days intensely focused on perfecting a cookie recipe if I feel there’s even the slightest chance a plate of perfect cookies might cheer someone up. All other concerns become secondary and tertiary.
My capacity to make decisions, at least in a timely manner, is severely encumbered. I’m felled by an abyss of contingencies, all of them equally-weighted, suffused with infinite possibility. A choice committed entails the occlusion of equally valid, mutually exclusive choices. Better not to make choices than to make the wrong one.
This form of paralysis has wreaked havoc on my ability to successfully complete a great multitude of work over the years. It doesn't matter if I’m faced with jotting down a brief reflection on a subject or engaging in an extensive literature review; when I sit down to write something and consider the limitless options before me, I become enmeshed in my endlessly tangential thoughts.
Uncountable ventures unfinished, abandoned, ethereal. Irreconcilable roads to nowhere, like in the Portland of The Lathe of Heaven. This becomes especially apparent to me whenever I attempt to engage in any form of deep reading; it takes me a very long time to finish a single book, and as a consequence I feel innately dull. It’s impossible for me to read more than a paragraph at a time without stopping to ponder for hours, or staring at the wall for days. I’m a dilettante. Facile. An impostor. Ashamed. Constantly vigilant lest others find out and feel compelled to discount me altogether.
Emotionally and intellectually stupefied, exhausted. Purportedly shiftless, a perpetual washout. Insouciant. Untrustworthy. A flake. A disappointment. I’ve internalized these perceptions. They are part of me. I have brown hair, green eyes, and I am a complete fuckup.
As I attempt to salvage some semblance of self-respect from the scree of my formative years, I’ve come to understand that in many regards I hold myself to impossibly high standards. If I create anything that I perceive to be less than perfect or ideal, I tend to take it as a failure, unworthy of being shared. Years ago, I wrote a letter to the editor in which, upon publication, someone erroneously changed my use of the word 'averse' to 'adverse.' There is literally not a single other entity in the universe who could possibly care about this, but it still bothers me immensely that my name was attached to the misapplication of a word.
I understand the fallacies inherent in what I've just said, but I nevertheless can't surmount them. Perfection is illusory, and the relentless pursuit of it is innately self-destructive. I would never hold anyone else to the same unattainable standards to which I hold myself. I would do everything within my power to distill the beauty in others’ work. To bestow a kind word whenever I can. To encourage tenacity. Why can’t I afford myself the same courtesy? Because to do so would constitute self-pity. Egotism. Naval gazing. Would be distasteful. Logic has no bearing on my self-concept.
I suppose that everybody has a set person they feel they've become, or have in fact become. Some people mold themselves into this person, but most elect to have others do it for them. We're all shaped by forces greater than us. After a while, this personality becomes hardened and stringent, like the shell of a cicada. We become reticent to molt because the process leaves us naked and vulnerable to the world.
I don’t like what I’ve written. It’s laughably maudlin, self-serious, my anecdotes are too personal, too specific, too boring, I’m sure that I ended a sentence with a preposition and failed to catch it, there are too many unnecessarily long words, I used the same word too many times in too close a proximity, I haven’t said anything that others haven’t said more eloquently a thousand times before, my writing is redundant, inelegant, not remotely transcendent. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to share it with you in the hope that doing so will allow me to finally emerge from the shadow of my seven-year-old self, or break free of my spent cicada shell, or whatever other trite metaphor you might see fit to employ. To allow me to accept myself for who I am. I will never be the world’s first fire-fighting cyborg clown to be appointed Secretary General of the United Nations, and I need to be okay with that. I am okay with that.
"Flash in the Pan" is a featured essay in Parts Unbound: Narratives of Mental Illness & Health, which Lime Hawk released in print this October.
Ben Twombly is the Special Projects Coordinator at the St. Louis Empowerment Center, a drop-in facility that provides services for individuals who are mental health consumers or who have co-occuring disorders. Please email him any good vegan cookie recipes.